Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Overall, Democrats perceived more risk associated with COVID-19 than Republicans, including for getting infected, being hospitalized and dying if infected, as well as running out of money

Political polarization in US residents’ COVID-19 risk perceptions, policy preferences, and protective behaviors. Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Htay-Wah Saw & Dana P. Goldman. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Nov 18 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: When the novel coronavirus entered the US, most US states implemented lockdown measures. In April–May 2020, state governments started political discussions about whether it would be worth the risk to reduce protective measures. In a highly politicized environment, risk perceptions and preferences for risk mitigation may vary by political inclinations. In April–May 2020, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5517 members of the University of Southern California’s Understanding America Study. Of those, 37% identified as Democrats, 32% as Republican, and 31% as Third Party/Independent. Overall, Democrats perceived more risk associated with COVID-19 than Republicans, including for getting infected, being hospitalized and dying if infected, as well as running out of money as a result of the pandemic. Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to express concerns that states would lift economic restrictions too quickly, and to report mask use and social distancing. Generally, participants who identified as Third Party/Independent fell in between. Democrats were more likely to report watching MSNBC or CNN (vs. not), while Republicans were more likely to report watching Fox News (vs. not), and Third Party/Independents tended to watch neither. However, political inclinations predicted reported policy preferences, mask use, and social distancing, in analyses that accounted for differences in use of media sources, risk perceptions, and demographic background. In these analyses, participants’ reported media use added to the partisan divide in preferences for the timing of lifting economic restrictions and reported protective behaviors. Implications for risk communication are discussed.


In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, school closures and bans of large gatherings were announced in March 2020 (Yeung et al. 2020), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020a) recommended protective behaviors such as practicing hand hygiene and social distancing, as well as wearing face masks. However, Republican politicians started calling for re-opening of the US economy as early as April–May 2020 (New York Times 2020a). In a highly politicized environment, individuals who differ in political inclinations may disagree about the risks, policy support, and need for protective behaviors (van Bavel et al. 2020). Moreover, such political polarization may be exacerbated by the different news sources being used by individuals with different political inclinations (Iyengar and Hahn, 2009).

Indeed, in a nationally representative survey with US residents conducted in April–May 2020, we found political polarization on every question about risk perception and risk mitigation that we assessed. Although mean risk perceptions were relatively high for both Democrats and Republicans, Democrats tended to perceive greater risks than Republicans, for getting infected with COVID-19 in the next three months, getting hospitalized or dying if infected, and running out of money in the next three months. These differences in risk perceptions held after accounting for differences in media use and demographic characteristics, suggesting that other political disagreements may have informed the political divide in risk perceptions. Possibly, the political discourse about COVID-19 in the United States, and Republicans’ initial comparisons of COVID-19 risk to seasonal flu risk (National Public Radio 2020) may have played a role.

Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to express concern that their own state and states in general would lift restrictions too quickly. Political differences in the policy preferences remained after controlling for risk perceptions, media use, and demographic differences. These differences may reflect other important political disagreements. For example, even before COVID-19, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to support collective strategies (as opposed to individual efforts) for societal change to promote better health outcomes (Gollust et al. 2009; Robert and Booske 2011).

Compared to preferences for opening the US economy, political differences were less pronounced for protective behaviors, suggesting that Democrats and Republicans were somewhat less divided about their own individual initiatives to protect personal health than about government policies. Although the majority of Democrats and Republicans indicated engaging in each protective behavior, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report using masks and avoiding public spaces or crowds. This difference remained significant after acounting for differences in risk perceptions, media use and demographics. These two behaviors, mask use and social distancing, may be the most politicized, because their requirement by states may go against Republicans’ preferences (Gollust et al. 2009; Robert and Booske 2011).

Differences by political inclinations tended to be more pronounced than differences by media preferences. Yet, participants’ reported media use did seem to add to the partisan divide in policy preferences and protective behaviors. Watching Fox News (vs. not) was associated with being less likely to express concern about states opening too quickly, while watching MSNBC or CNN (vs. not) was associated with being more likely to do so—even when political inclinations and other characteristics were accounted for. Watching MSNBC or CNN was also systematically associated with increased likelihood of implementing protective behaviors before and after accounting for political inclinations, while watching Fox News was not.

Like any study, ours had limitations. Because we reported on a cross-sectional survey, causal conclusions are unwarranted. Moreover, April–May 2020 may have been a time of particular political polarization, because information about the risks associated with COVID-19 was still uncertain and rapidly changing—perhaps leaving more room for (political) interpretation.

The political divide in COVID-19 risk perceptions, policy preferences, and preferences for protective behaviors pose a potential challenge for practitioners and policy makers tasked with reducing the spread of COVID-19. However, actionable steps have been suggested for reducing political polarization (van Bavel et al. 2020). First, highlighting shared challenges could provide a sense of shared identity (van Bavel et al. 2020). Second, providing consistent and accurate messages should reduce partisan-motivated reasoning and inaccurate beliefs (Ahler and Sood 2018). Finally, political polarization in people’s beliefs may be reduced when there is bipartisan support for COVID-19-related measures (Bolsen, Druckman and Cook 2014). Indeed, research about risk and crisis communication has indicated that prevention efforts are more effective when different sources provide consistent and accurate messaging (Glik 2007; Reynolds 2006). Thus, effectively combating health crises such as COVID-19 requires political leadership that aims to unite rather than divide, and to reach across the aisles.

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